Saturday, 7 April 2018

Review: 'A State of Freedom' by Neel Mukherjee

I read Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others back in 2014, and when I saw his name pop up on Netgalley I remembered how much I had enjoyed his writing style as well as his sharp observations of human behavior. But still I wasn't prepared for the beauty and heartbreak that awaited me in A State of Freedom. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage; Chatto & Windus

What happens when we attempt to exchange the life we are given for something better? Can we transform the possibilities we are born into? 
A State of Freedom prises open the central, defining events of our century – displacement and migration – but not as you imagine them. Five characters, in very different circumstances, from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, and a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city, find out the meanings of dislocation, and the desire for more. 
Set in contemporary India and moving between the reality of this world and the shadow of another, this novel of multiple narratives – formally daring, fierce but full of pity – delivers a devastating and haunting exploration of the unquenchable human urge to strive for a different life.
At first glance the five stories in A State of Freedom seem to have been put together at random, sharing nothing except all being placed in India. However, as one works his way through each story, comes to care for or puzzle at each character, one starts to see how all of their stories are interlinked, how  one's actions affect the other, how each character's struggle is in a way representative of the other's struggle as well. The novel is prefaced by a quote from a Syrian refugee at the border of Austria, August 2015:
'Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, what's what we are, ghosts.'
Throughout the stories in A State of Freedom Mukherjee explores the stories of people who seem like ghosts, who live on the periphery, who can look in but not partake, or who are desperately struggling for a freedom they can't quite explain. If you could ask these characters what it is they want, I dont know if they'd be able to tell you. But they burn with a desire to live fully, to be completely, to take up space and be recognised. Not all characters in A State of Freedom are pleasant, but in each you can't help but recognise that spark of desire for freedom. And it is what makes these characters so recognisable and heartbreaking in the end.

Mukherjee tells five different stories in A State of Freedom, each strangely linked to the others and yet wholly independent. In the first story a father takes his son on a trip back to India from America, only to feel continuously haunted by his own weakening connection to his homeland and his son's seeming non-interest. In the second story a young man visits his parents in India while working on a cook book and gets to know the family's cook, a woman who works quietly and hard, with a whole story just waiting to be told. Class, pride, generational differences, it all comes to the surface in this story. The third story is perhaps the most difficult in A State of Freedom, in that its protagonist is not exactly likeable and yet you can't despise him. He finds a bear cub and hopes that by viciously training it he will be able to win both an emotional as well as financial freedom. In the fourth story we follow a woman from childhood to adulthood as she is moved around to work as a maid here or there, stripped of independence until she manages to claw as much of it back as she can. Interspersed with her story is that of her childhood friend who joined a Communist militant group in the hopes to change something, do something. The fifth and last story is perhaps the most heartbreaking, told without punctuation in a rambling stream of consciousness style. In this final story the follow a man who moved to the city to earn money for his family as his mind wanders, lost. This story is close to painful to read in its hopelessness and tragedy.

I have tried to describe the stories in A State of Freedom above as clearly yet non-spoilery as is possible, yet I don't know if I'll be able to find the words to explain just how heartbreaking some of them are. Mukherjee doesn't spare his readers and forces them to look upon his characters, his country, as clearly as he does. With unflinching but beautiful prose, Mukherjee describes the wonder of India's nature, the sumptuousness of its food, the harshness of its poverty, the brutality of its division between rich and poor, the pride and resilience of its people. In a way A State of Freedom is an ode to freedom, an encouraging cry to all of us who struggle day by day to reach some kind of state of freedom. And yet it is also a harsh reminder of just how far many of us are removed from finding that freedom, from being free in any sense of the word, from worry, financial burden, shame, oppression. A State of Freedom isn't a fun read, but it is one that will leave a beautiful ache once it's finished.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

There were times this collection made me want to cry, but there were also times when it filled me with hope. Mukherjee's five stories are horribly beautiful and stunningly sad, and I wholeheartedly recommend you read them. A State of Freedom will stick with me for a very long time.

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